A Changing Role of Links in Ranking and What It Does to Your SEO Strategy

25 April 2019

Google’s John Mueller shared in a Webmaster Hangout an insight into how Google uses links.

You might say why is this important? What John Mueller says impacts a lot on your SEO strategy, whether you are doing it yourself or hiring a pro.

So, what he shared recently may change how we think about links in the context of ranking content.

One of the questions was about popular news (and other) sites converting all outbound links to no follow. People were interested in how and on what level it might affect the ranking for those sites and how does that impact the web as a whole.

Apparently, this is not a big deal. All sites, including news sites too, can “no follow” all their outbound links, without disrupting how Google finds and ranks websites.

We heard this before, but, Mueller explained thoroughly that there are more signals beyond links used to rank web pages. It’s not all about the links. Google can pick up content and show it in search by looking at many different aspects.

About the Link Graph

We can explain the link graph as some kind of an Internet map, looking through how web pages link to each other. As the city roads that link to each other, the entire Internet can be mapped through how web pages link to each other. This is called the link graph.

global social network connection conceptAnd by removing the spam sites from the link graph, we are creating a reduced link graph.

This leads to the next question that supposed to be critical for website rankings issue. Are "bad" or "spammy” links the main suspect when websites are struggling with bad rankings?

Suppose not, for as John emphasized – when sites are not ranking well, the reason isn’t (just) because of links but because of the content.

He proceeded by saying that when he visited different help forums people often said their sites suffer from bad rankings or that got downgraded.

And later, when having looked at with the team, links were not a problem, but rather everything else around the website or on the website. Sometimes is that simple that you failed to explicitly mention what you want to rank for on your pages.

Pretty scary, isn’t it?

So, How Much Google Really Relies on Links?

We had a chance to hear an interesting insight about how links are used by Google for ranking. It’s really hard to say whether Google relies more or less on links, the truth is that it depends from case to case.

And in exact words

“It's not the case that we have like a fixed weight and say this factor plays 10% of the role and this factor plays 10% of the role and that 10 % is going to be the same across all queries and intents and across all websites.”

When trying to figure out how to rank a site or why a site does not rank, it is important to know and understand that the context of the search query may be an important factor to look at. And links’ quality and quantity may play fewer roles in rankings depending on factors such as user intent and other contexts.

But, what kind of links?

Inbound, outbound, bad, spammy ones or those coming from trusted sites?

Many SEOs and business owners believe their ranking declines are due to low-quality spam links that keep popping out every month in their analytics. Then they waste time and resources to disavow all those links in an attempt to halt the ranking declines. Sad thing is that in almost every case, the ”disavows” solves nothing.

attentive man staring laptopThe reason it solves nothing is because the rankings are not just about who links to you. It's about your place in the link graph which is determined not just by who links to you but more importantly by whom you link to as well. There are two parts to the link graph, inbound links, and outbound links.

Apparently, the Google crew do look at a website overall to see how the website is embedded within the web and try to figure out where they should show this based on how you want to "position" your website in the web.

Factors such as user intent can influence rankings, even in competitive niches.

A perfect example could be a situation of breaking news (on news sites) and their rankings. You simply cannot find a lot of articles that link to that news yet because it’s so fresh. But it is extremely relevant for this particular query and so it must be on top of the search results.

No secret ingredient here

Have you been noticing that sites with few links could also rank? Is it some kind of magic, or just having a killer copy?

Maybe both. So, we heard that links continue to be a major ranking factor. But, still not the only one. When we look at the SEO related articles from 5 and more years back, we could see the shift from the old link based strategies to “Content is King” and back to this “post content” era. What exactly this means? Too much focus on links can be less productive than focusing just on content, but the best results could be achieved by implementing the best of both worlds. Try to find a balance between focusing on links and content. The “system” is far too sophisticated and you could be wasting your money and resources focusing on just one aspect.